This headline, with a link to the full article by Eric Metaxas (who, after C.S. Lewis, describes himself as a “mere Christian”), was on the front page of Yahoo News yesterday (click screenshot to go there):
To see the full “argument,” such as it is, you have to go to the conservative news service CNSnews.com, which took its article word for word from Breakpoint, a Christian site founded by Chuck Colson, whose vision is “a revived Church renewing culture and awakening the world to Truth” and “providing a Christian perspective on the important news and issues of the day.” Well, you might be a bit dubious about the antievolution article given its sources, but have a look at Metaxas’s argument. I maintain that, like all creationist arguments against “evolution,” it’s full of holes and that the headline above is deeply misleading.
Metaxas’s argument is simple. The recent discovery of possible stromatolites (accretion fossils produced by cyanobacteria) from 3.7 billion years ago is problematic, so Metaxas claims, for those who think that life began on Earth. (Before this discovery, the earliest convincing evidence of cellular life on Earth was 3.4-3.5 bya, so this pushes known prokaryotic life back 200-300 million years.)
Further, says Metaxas, there’s evidence (though it’s still a bit controversial) for a “Late Heavy Bombardment” (LHB) of asteroids striking the Earth, repeatedly, about 4 billion years ago, after the Earth had formed 4.6 bya and cooled. That evidence comes from dates of rocks, collected by astronauts, that were involved in such a bombardment on the Moon. Because the LHB was pretty close to the time that we first find prokaryotic cells, leads Metaxas to his conclusion:
Well, [the newly described stromatolite remnants] appear in rocks most scientists date to 220 million years older than the oldest fossils, which pushes the supposed date for the origin of life back to 3.7 billion years ago.
This, admits the New York Times, “complicate[s] the story of evolution of early life from chemicals … .” No kidding! According to conventional geology, these microbe colonies existed on the heels of a period when Earth was undergoing heavy asteroid bombardment, making it virtually uninhabitable. This early date, adds The Times, “leaves comparatively little time for evolution to have occurred … .”
That is an understatement. These life forms came into existence virtually overnight, writes David Klinghoffer at Evolution News and Views “[g]enetic code, proteins, photosynthesis, the works.” [JAC: Klinghoffer is an intelligent-design creationist and Evolution News and Views is an ID creationist website run by the Discovery Institute.]
This appearance of fully-developed life forms so early in the fossil record led Dr. Abigail Allwood of Caltech to remark that “life [must not be] a fussy, reluctant and unlikely thing.” Rather, “[i]t will emerge whenever there’s an opportunity.”
Pardon me? If life occurs so spontaneously and predictably even under the harshest conditions, then it should be popping up all over the place! Yet scientists still cannot come close to producing even a single cell from raw chemicals in the lab.
Dr. Stephen Meyer explains in his book “Signature in the Cell” why this may be Darwinism’s Achilles heel.
Ergo, life had very little time to originate through natural processes after the LHB stopped, so God must have done it (note the reference to Stephen Meyer, a Christian member of the creationist Discovery Institute).
Here are the problems with Metaxas’s argument:
- The dating of the 3.7-billion-year-old stromatolite “fossils” is questionable; they’re not fossils themselves, but traces in the sediments that the authors attribute to stromatolites. The date may be right, but we need more solid findings to confirm this.
- The LHB itself is controversial for various reasons; a bit of Googling will tell you why. And even if it did occur (I tend to side with those who think it did), its dates aren’t certain, and it could have been over 200 million years before the first traces of life appeared.
- Although during the LHB many asteroids possibly struck the Earth, that didn’t necessarily prevent life from forming. Molecular dating of the Last Universal Common Ancestor (LUCA) of all living creatures is now about 4 billion years ago, jibing pretty well with the later (but not too much later) appearance of cells. That life, as posited by Nick Lane and others, may have originated in vents (either cold or hot) in the deep sea, which could well have been impervious to asteroid strikes, or could have avoided them. Further, some chemicals used in the origin of life may have arrived on asteroids, though I don’t see that as necessary. What we do know is that life seems to have started pretty soon after the Earth cooled down, so that complex cells were present at least a billion years after the molten Earth formed. As for the “ease” of life implying that it should now be popping up all over the place, well, existing organisms would surely outcompete newly arising life or nom it to extinction.
- We have no idea how long it took life to originate from the chemicals and environmental conditions present on early Earth. If you accept Nick Lane’s scenario in his book Life Ascending, it could have been very quick, eliminating Metaxas’s problem.
- Finally, what Metaxas is kvetching about here is not evolution in general, but abiogenesis: the origin of life. As for the rest of evolution—the transformation of early cells into other creatures, up to the millions of species we have today—well, we have plenty of evidence for that, a lot laid out in my book Why Evolution is True. The fossil record shows many of these transformations, and we have further evidence of evolution from molecular biology, biogeography, vestigial organs, embryology, and so on. None of that needs more defending, and it’s to Metaxas’s discredit (but a common tactic of creationists) that he conflates the origin of life with its evolution after it had begun.
It’s true that we don’t know exactly when life began on Earth, and of course what you call “life” is a bit subjective. We do know that we see prokaryotic cells around about a billion years after the Earth was formed, and soon after the LHB. Is that not long enough for a spontaneous origin of life on earth? Who knows? Where’s the theory that says otherwise? Just asserting that “there wasn’t enough time” is hardly a scientific argument.
And shame on Yahoo, as well as those other sources, to conflate the origin of life with the evolution of life once it had begun. The former is still the subject of lab and field work, but there’s no need to defend the latter—the evidence is overwhelming.
Metaxas, I’d guess, has, in his ignorance, allied himself with the ID creationists, for have a look at the “recommended” books below the Breakpoint article. Yep, they’re all by creationist Stephen C. Meyer, a flack for the Discovery Institute:
Finally, I hardly need to argue that if we don’t yet understand something, we’re not compelled to give up completely and invoke God—clearly what Metaxas is implying. The god-of-the-gaps argument has failed over and over gain in the last few centuries—most notably with evolution itself—but desperate and ignorant creationists continue to use it. Sad.